Apple of My Eye – Claire Allan

As soon as I saw her I knew that she didn’t deserve to be a mother. She was squeezed in behind a table in the café, her face pale, drawn. She rubbed her stomach for the briefest of seconds, as if it were something she’d just remembered she was expected to do. Act the part of the happy mum-to-be; rub your expanding stomach, push it out, flaunt your fecundity to the world. Everything about her body language screamed that this wasn’t a wanted or loved baby. That she didn’t appreciate what she had. What a gift she’d been given. She looked like a woman who saw pregnancy as an ordeal. Something to be endured. If only she knew. When it was me, I’d welcomed every pregnancy symptom. Every single one. The sickness. The sore and swollen breasts. The bleeding gums.

The swollen ankles. The backache. Even the acid reflux. It was proof I was doing something miraculous. Making a new life and bringing a new soul into this world. I’d gone to sleep every night with my hands on my bump, whispering stories and hopes and dreams to my baby. Telling him or her of the life they’d have. Of the love that would be showered down on them. God, I was never as happy as I was when I could feel my baby wriggle and kick. I felt more alive with every movement.

The symbiosis of my child and me as we shared each breath. I deserved to be a mother. This woman, tired and worn out and miserable, didn’t. Not as much as I did, anyway. Holding my breath, I watched her across the café as she pushed a loose strand of hair back behind her ear, listened as she sighed loudly. The thing is, babies don’t really need their mothers. Once they’re delivered, all they want is someone to see to their every need. To feed them, change them, pat them gently on the back to bring up their milky-scented burps. To bathe them and dress and rock them gently to sleep. Other people could do that.

I could do that. CHAPTER ONE Eli The crisp white envelope sticks out from where it’s been stuffed into my pigeonhole. I lift it, along with the rest of my post, and make my way to the staffroom. It’s probably a note from one of my families. I both love and hate receiving them. A note or thankyou card of course means I’ve done my job well, but it also usually follows a death. One of my patients will have gone, and a thank-you note will mark part of the admin for a poor family to complete while they’re still shaken from grief. My name’s printed neatly on the cover. Almost as if it’s been typed, but there’s a small smudge of ink that betrays its handwritten status. Eli Hughes Senior Staff Nurse Cherrygreen Hospice I don’t think much of it at first.

I’m focusing on getting fifteen minutes to compose myself. To try to eat something before my hunger turns to nausea. Drink some coffee before my fatigue overwhelms me. Put my feet up before my ankles swell further. Yes, I’m at the retaining-water stage of pregnancy – seven and a half months – and still waiting for the sickness to pass. I’ve long ago given up on the notion that it’s just morning sickness. Hyperemesis is beyond morning sickness. They should call it pregnancy poisoning. I’m only able to function because of anti-sickness medication, and even then … There’s a plain ham sandwich – white bread, thin layer of real butter – wrapped in tinfoil in the fridge. My stomach turns at the thought.

I’ll try a coffee, even though I shouldn’t. Even though the smell makes me feel woozy and I’ve had my one daily cup already. I need caffeine. I make a cup and sit down, a plain Rich Tea biscuit in front of me. Lunch. Once this baby’s born, I’ll never, ever eat plain biscuits again. I turn my attention to the post, the neatly handwritten envelope first. It contains just one sheet of paper: small, blue, lined – the kind on which I’d have written pages and pages of letters to my pen pals when I was a teen. Unfolding it, I see just two lines of text, written in the same neat print: YOU SHOULDN’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING HE TELLS YOU I look at the words and read them again. I turn the page around to see if I’m missing anything on the back page to put these words in context.

I even check inside the envelope, peering in, shaking it out. A strange feeling washes over me. Is this some silly joke, or meant for someone else, or a clever marketing scheme for something? I hadn’t the first notion what that could be, but wasn’t that the whole point with clever marketing schemes these days? Get everyone talking. Then bam! The big reveal … I shouldn’t believe whom? What? I put the note down, then gingerly bite on my biscuit, which crumbles into sawdust in my mouth. I know I won’t finish it. I don’t have the patience for silly games or puzzles. But I can’t deny my inner nosiness. Rachel arrives, walks to the fridge, mutters about it being a long day and stares at the wilted salad she’s brought in with her, closing the fridge door in disgust. ‘I think I might run out and grab something from the shop. A sandwich or something.

Can I tempt you?’ Rachel does this a lot. Brings in a healthy lunch and forsakes it for something laden with mayonnaise and cheese when push comes to shove. Still maintains an enviable figure – one I envy even more now that I’m expanding at an exponential rate. ‘There’s a ham sandwich in there you can have. It’s good ham. I’m not going to eat it. Will save you nipping out.’ ‘And take food from a pregnant woman? Do you think I’m some sort of monster?’ She laughs but opens the fridge anyway and lifts out my tinfoil parcel. She points it in my direction. ‘Are you sure you don’t want it?’ My stomach turns in response and the involuntary face I pull answers her question.

‘You poor thing. You know, Eli, maybe you really should think of starting maternity leave early.’ I shake my head. ‘Nonsense.’ Keen to change the conversation, I push the note in her direction. ‘Look at this note I got. Did you get one like it? Have you any idea what it’s about?’ Sitting down, she takes the note and looks at it. I watch for a reaction on her face. Her eyebrows rise just a little but she shakes her head. ‘I’ve no idea,’ she says.

‘But no, I didn’t get one. Ooh! Eliana Hughes, have you got a stalker?’ She laughs but I don’t. I force a smile but feel my chest tighten. She must notice my expression. ‘Eli, I’m kidding. I’m sure it’s nothing. Someone’s idea of a joke or something. Or mistaken identity. Sure, it’s bound to be that. Who would you have to mistrust? You and Martin have the most solid marriage I’ve ever seen.

There’s no way he’d play away.’ Martin. It didn’t even cross my mind it could be about Martin. Until now. I want to nod and say yes, we’re the most solid couple people know. Because we were … but lately … There’s a disconnect there that I can’t quite put my finger on. The coffee I’ve been drinking tastes bitter. Of bile. Just like everything else tastes off that I’ve had to eat or drink over the last seven months. Just like everything in my life feels off.

We’d tried so hard to have this baby. Months of disappointment and finally tests. Then ‘There’s nothing we can find, just give it time,’ and more disappointment until, finally, two lines. It should be the happiest time of our lives. Certainly the happiest time of my life; nurturing a new human life deep within me, bonding with this kicking, wriggling person made of love about to become our baby. I expected to love every moment of pregnancy, but I realise now I’d been naïve. This kicking, wriggling person who seems to be made of right angles, jabs and pokes at my stomach muscles, which are permanently aching from the daily retching. It makes me feel sorry for myself. I feel angry that I’ve been robbed of a positive pregnancy experience that most women get. And I feel guilty that I resent this pregnancy not being what I wanted it to be.

Sure, won’t the end result be the same? Isn’t that what’s important? And Martin, try as he might, can’t understand how I feel. I suppose I’ve been taking that anger and frustration out on him a little. I feel tears prick at my eyes. Swear at myself. I can’t cry again today. ‘Eli.’ Rachel’s voice cuts through my thoughts. I look up at her, her eyes filled with concern. Her hand reaches across the table and takes mine. ‘Eli, you do know Martin would never, ever cheat on you.

This isn’t about Martin. This is somebody’s idea of a stupid joke, or it’s about something else we’ve just not figured out yet. But we will.’ I nod, two fat tears rolling down my cheeks. My nose running, I sniff loudly, grab a tissue from the box on the table and roughly rub at my eyes. ‘You’re right,’ I say. ‘Of course you’re right.’ I look at the letter again. It doesn’t reveal anything new, so in a rage I crumple it up and throw it into the bin beside the fridge. Rachel smiles.

Tells me I’ve done the right thing and gives my hand a rub before her pager calls her back to a patient. When she’s gone, I take it back out and thrust it deep into the bottom of my handbag. CHAPTER TWO Eli By the time my shift is done, I’m exhausted and I’m pretty sure my ankles have doubled in size. I can’t wait to get home, kick off my shoes and feel the cool marble floors of our living space under my tired feet. But my car’s in the garage and I have to wait for Martin to collect me. As usual, he’s late. Probably stuck on a work call he can’t get out of. I’m standing with my coat on, looking out at the rain falling onto the hospice car park, when Rachel asks if I need a lift. ‘It’s not on your way home,’ I tell her. ‘I couldn’t ask you to do that.

’ ‘You didn’t. I offered,’ she says with a smile. ‘It’ll save that husband of yours coming out on a night like this and sure, it’s not that far out of my way. The kids are at their dad’s, so it’s not like I’m in a rush to get home anyway. You’ve had a long day,’ she says, and I want to hug her. ‘If you’re sure?’ I ask. ‘I’ll just check Martin hasn’t left.’ ‘I’m sure,’ she smiles. I dial my husband, who answers after two rings, apologises and says he’ll be with me shortly. I can hear from the background noises that he’s still at home.

‘Rachel’s going to drop me over. You’ve no need to come out,’ I tell him. He sounds relieved. ‘That’s great,’ he says. ‘I can get on with some work while dinner’s cooking. It’s been a mad day, so busy. But look, I’ll talk to you about it when you get home.’ Work has been ‘mad’ for months now. Longer hours. More trips away.

A big project that could bring a lot more work his way. When he wants to talk about it, it generally means he’ll tell me about another ‘vital’ trip away. It’s a good thing I’m not the suspicious type. Or wasn’t. I end the call and tell Rachel I’ll take her up on her offer. ‘Are you okay?’ she asks as she leads the way to her car. ‘You’re not still mulling over that silly note, are you?’ I force a smile. Shake my head. Lie and say I’m fine and that I’m just tired. Change the conversation to something less likely to make me feel tightness in my chest.

We talk about who we’re rooting for in Strictly Come Dancing until we pull up outside my house. I feel as if I should invite her in, but I’m too tired to play the gracious host. ‘We must get you round for dinner some time,’ I say to her. ‘Have a proper catch-up outside work, when we aren’t both so tired.’ I hope that makes up for the lack of invite tonight. ‘That’d be lovely,’ she says with genuine warmth. I give her a quick hug then climb out of the car and walk to the front door of my dream home, nervous about what my husband will tell me. When we first moved to this house just over eighteen months ago, after several years of enduring a three-hour commute between Belfast and Derry, I thought I was the luckiest woman alive. There were certain perks to marrying an architect, not that it really mattered to me what Martin did for a living. I’d fallen head over heels in love within weeks of meeting him.

Set on the banks of Enagh Lough, just outside Derry city, Martin had overseen the renovation of the old farmhouse himself. It had taken a year – and lots of blood, sweat and tears – but he’d made our home magnificent. The rear of the house, which looked out over the lake and the surrounding woods, was mostly glazed. Large plate glass windows set in natural wood frames. Bifold doors onto wooden decking, leading to our own personal jetty – it was stunning in all seasons. It had felt like our home from the moment we’d walked over the threshold of that ramshackle farmhouse; of course, it felt more so now. It was our bubble in a hectic world that moved at a breakneck speed. It feels less of a bubble these days. Pregnancy has made me feel vulnerable in a way I never did before. Reliant, not so much on Martin as an individual but on Martin and I as a team.

A couple. Ready to work together on this next scary chapter. I’d watched my mother struggle as a single parent. I don’t want that struggle. I don’t want my child to grow up not knowing their father. I think of the note, that stupid piece of paper, and a shiver runs through me. Dropping my bag on the marble floor in the hall, I hang up my coat and call out to Martin that I’m home. He walks out of the kitchen, apron on, wine glass in hand, and says hello with a smile. His smile still has the power to make me feel weak at the knees. Even now, ten years after we first met.

I smile back, for a moment feeling comforted by his presence. But even from several feet way, the smell of wine makes me feel nauseous. I take a deep breath, try to swallow down the sickness. If I just take a few minutes to settle myself, take another anti-sickness pill, I might be okay to sit with him for dinner. ‘Did you not invite Rachel in with you?’ he asks, looking behind me. ‘Erm, no. I thought you wanted to talk, and I’m so tired. I didn’t think …’ ‘That’s a shame,’ he said. ‘She’s good company.’ I tense.

Am I not good company on my own? ‘Well, I said we’ll have her over for dinner sometime soon.’ ‘That’ll be nice,’ Martin says, moving towards me and pulling me into a hug. ‘I’m just going to grab a bath,’ I say, pulling back a little. The smell of garlic is assailing my nostrils. ‘Do I have time?’ ‘If you’re quick. Maybe twenty minutes. Perhaps you’d be better waiting until you’ve eaten before you have a soak.’ ‘I really need to freshen up. My stomach’s churning, too. Not sure I’ll eat much.

’ ‘I’ve made a pasta bake. It’s quite light. Not creamy or cheesy. You should try some at least, Eli,’ he says, his face filled with concern. As if he sees me as more vulnerable now, too. No longer an equal partner. ‘You’re very good to me,’ I say. ‘Of course I am,’ he smiles. ‘I even left mushrooms out of the recipe because I know you can’t so much as look at them at the moment.’ I smile.

‘I’ll be as quick as I can,’ I say and continue upstairs, where I run the bath and lie in the water, watching my baby wriggle under my skin, feet and elbows pushing outwards. I wonder how something so small and innocent can make me feel so sick all the time. I stroke my stomach, whispering, ‘I love you,’ hoping if I say it enough I’ll start to really, really feel it. After climbing out of the bath, I wrap myself in my fluffy dressing gown and I’m just about to get dressed into my pyjamas, when I hear my phone ring. I look at it and see ‘Mum’ on the screen. I’m so happy to see her name and I wish, not for the first time, that she lived closer. ‘Hi, Mum,’ I say. ‘What’s wrong, pet?’ Her reply is immediate. She can always read my mood. Name that emotion in one.

‘Ah, it’s been a long day,’ I say, trying my hardest not to cry. How is it that talking to my mother instantly brings all my emotions to the fore? I want to tell her about the note but decide not to. She’d only worry and one of us worrying is enough. ‘And the baby? Everything’s okay there?’ she asks, her voice soft but thick with concern. ‘Still making me throw up on a regular basis,’ I say, a hiccup of self-pity ending my sentence for me. ‘You poor pet,’ she soothes. ‘It’ll be worth it. And sure, isn’t sickness a sign of a healthy pregnancy?’ ‘This one’ll come out like Superman then,’ I say, forcing a laugh. ‘And Martin? Is everything okay with you both?’ I nod, make some sort of affirmative noise. I don’t want to go down that particular conversational route.

‘Look, Mum, I’ve just got out of the bath. I need to get dried off and into my pyjamas. Martin’s making dinner. I’m planning to get something to eat and go to bed. Work was so busy.’ ‘You’re doing too much,’ she says and I feel myself bristle. This is something she and Martin agree on. They don’t realise that right now, work is the one place I feel in control. ‘I can handle it, Mum. It’s just been a long day,’ I tell her.

‘Well, I don’t like the sound of you one bit,’ she says. ‘I’m going to come and visit on Saturday and I’ll hear no arguments.’ There’s no way I’m going to argue. I could use some maternal TLC. I tell her I’ll look forward to it and that I love her and then I hang up, lie back on the bed and promise myself just five minutes of rest before dinner. I wake, of course, much later, as Martin comes up to bed. Blinking and stretching, shivering a little, I ask him what time it is. ‘It’s gone eleven. You should just go back to sleep.’ ‘I’m sorry,’ I say.

‘I didn’t mean to sleep. I was planning to come down for dinner.’ My stomach grumbles to reinforce my point. ‘Don’t worry about it,’ he says, unbuttoning his shirt and throwing it into the laundry hamper. ‘I’ve plated some up for you. It’s in the fridge.’ Is it my imagination or is his tone not as soft as it was? He sits on the edge of the bed, looking out of the window over the blackness of the lake. I feel the need to be close to him. ‘C’m’ere,’ I say, reaching my arms out to him. He turns, gives me a soft smile and climbs under the covers, pulling himself across to me and allowing me to hold him.

His hand slips under my dressing gown, to my still naked body. I shiver again, only this time in anticipation. But his hand moves directly to my growing stomach. ‘All this’ll be worth it,’ he says. ‘I know you’re feeling rotten, but this little one’s going to bring us so much happiness and I just know you’re going to be the best mum in the world.’ With his words, our house feels like our bubble again and I smile at him, place my hand on top of his and feel calm. He kisses the top of my head and squeezes my hand. Tempted as I am to fall back to sleep there and then beside him, I know I need to eat something or the nausea will be much worse when it swoops in again. I sit up, tell him I won’t be long. ‘I just need a bit of toast or something.

’ ‘Are you shunning my pasta bake for the second time in one night?’ he asks with a crooked smile. I stick my tongue out at him. ‘Might be too much considering it’s so late, but it’ll do tomorrow night.’ ‘Ah, that might be good, actually,’ he says, sitting up. ‘I still need to talk to you about that.’ I pull on my pyjama bottoms and look around to him while putting on my oversized maternity pyjama top. ‘Yeah?’ ‘I need to go to London again.’ My heart sinks. It’s been just a week since his last trip. I know it’s a big job, but I hadn’t expected him to have to travel quite so much.

The note in my bag niggles at me again. ‘A snag with the communal play area,’ he says. ‘And the landscaper wants to discuss the garden plans with me. Boring stuff, but I have to be on site. I need to feel the space to see how it would work. They want doors moved from the original plan – which means moving the storage area and redesigning the mezzanine slightly.’ There’s little point in arguing. What would it look like, anyway? I really would be the Wicked Witch of the West if I asked him to pass the work to one of his colleagues at this stage. This project has been his baby, long before we had an actual baby of our own to worry about. ‘How long will you be away for?’ I ask.

Last time it was just two nights, which wasn’t so bad; even if, by the second night, I found myself increasingly anxious without him close by. ‘That’s the kicker,’ he says. ‘I need to be there for a meeting on Tuesday and, realistically, to get the plans done and drawn up … There’s not much point in me coming back until Tuesday night.’ Friday to Tuesday – four nights – over the weekend. ‘I know that means the weekend …’ he says as if reading my thoughts. ‘I thought maybe you could go and see your mum.’ ‘I’m working on Saturday,’ I mutter. ‘But Mum was planning to come and visit anyway. See how I am.’ ‘Well that’s perfect, then,’ he says, smiling widely.

‘You’ll be well looked after and I won’t have to worry about you so much.’ ‘You don’t have to worry about me anyway,’ I say, my tone sharper than I’d like. I cringe at how petulant I sound. ‘But I do, because I love you,’ he enunciates slowly as if to make the point extra clear. ‘If you loved me …’ I start, the words out of my mouth before I’ve had time to think. ‘If I loved you? Really? And what? I’d quit my job? I’m too tired to go over this again, Eli. I know you’re pregnant. I know it’s tough. I know your hormones are raging, but …’ He shakes his head. ‘No.

I’m not doing this. Not now. Goodnight, Eli.’ Our earlier exchange feels soured. All I can think is how, despite the nice dinner and the hugs and the smiles, things are far from right between us.

.

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